You Think You Get To Choose Who Rents Your D.C. Apartment? Think Again.
The District of Columbia has anti-discrimination gotchas at every turn, writes landlord Douglas Hsiao on the Washington Post. (The best is the bit where his property manager advises against meeting the prospective tenants.):
So when I had a group of three young professional women who wanted to rent the apartment a few years ago, I was surprised to learn from my property manager that I couldn't turn them away. In fact, I was told that I should score them as stronger candidates because they had three incomes to cover the rent. The only thing that prevented them from becoming tenants was that, as a condition of their offer to take the apartment, they wanted to put up a wall to convert the living room into another sleeping area. I could legally say no to that structural change, and to my relief they decided that they didn't want the apartment after all.
Another tenant who once applied for the apartment was unemployed. Easy case: no job, no apartment. Not so fast. The potential tenant's father was willing to co-sign the lease, and he had a large and enviable income. Even so, I still think that a landlord has a good reason to turn the renter away, since the actual resident of the apartment doesn't have sufficient income of her own to afford the rent. All things being equal, I would prefer a person with a job over one who does not.
I got my hand slapped for that one by my property manager.
Under D.C. law, you are not allowed to discriminate based on the renter's "source of income." Who knew? It's to protect the Section 8 program, which provides housing vouchers to low income residents. Because I worked for a Legal Services housing clinic in Boston during college, I know something about Section 8 and how valuable it is to tenants and landlords alike. (Federal guaranty? Yes, please!) But the wording of this D.C. law protects not only those low income families from discrimination but also the trust fund baby with unlimited parental backing or the bookmaker who doesn't want to say where he got the money for his Porsche.
And finally, this: I asked my property manager whether we could meet with potential tenants and interview them. She told me that, as a general rule, she does not like to meet any potential tenants. Why? Because if you never meet them, you cannot be accused of discriminating against them. It would be funny if it were not so Kafkaesque.
Between a dues-paying member of the D.C. bar and a property manager with decades of experience managing properties, we cannot agree on what the housing discrimination law means. While I fully appreciate the rules my property manager maintains to protect me from illegal conduct, this protection comes at a price, by shutting down the normal ways that people engage with one another. And there's no reward for testing the law, no matter how much it may defy common sense.